Playing It Straight

Dorian Gray may be easy on the eye but it fails to create a frisson

Film Literature

I had to sign an embargo before the screening of the latest adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s novel of public beauty and private decay. It was the kind of embargo film publicists impose when they don’t want critics to give away surprise endings. Presumably they think the audience will be oblivious to the cultural resonance, even the very existence, of one of English literature’s more colourful characters. Well, a couple of clicks on the internet would take the curious quickly to the source material, and the book’s very name (the new film is called simply Dorian Gray) would give the game away. But as it stands, there you have it: a dumbed-down culture encapsulated in a signature.

I don’t think the film’s PRs had Standpoint readers in mind here, but maybe they’re taking you for granted. I would have thought you were part of their target market. Aren’t you interested to see what 2009 does with a book which only 30 years ago had a ring of danger about it? It’s a book that has been filmed several times in different guises, given the BBC masterpiece theatre treatment and even squeezed on to the opera and dance stages. Considering the current obsession with anti-ageing face creams, the Peter Pan complex and the rise of the homoerotic male image, it’s surprising contemporary filmmakers have taken so long to get round to it.     

You might be pleased that apart from an unnecessarily extended time frame and the addition of an unconvincing third act-during which Dorian (Ben Barnes) falls for a young woman in some kind of act of redemption — director Oliver Parker’s film sticks to the story and the late 19th-century milieu. No cutting-edge Sharks and Jets stuff here. Stylistically, we’re in handsome Sweeney Todd and Dracula territory, all blue-grey streets and lush, warm Leightonesque interiors: computer imagery has done well by Victorian London. The cast is full of those dependable people — Fiona Shaw, Emilia Fox, Ben Chaplin — who know and understand the material. Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian’s champion and possible corruptor, a stout and bearded Colin Firth, slips finally and effortlessly from romantic leading man to something weightier; he seems to be having fun. Never before have I noticed how well Firth’s eyes can act. He should keep the beard.

What is harder to take is Parker’s slightly quaint, pernickety approach to debauchery and decadence. This is not entirely the director’s fault. It must be difficult to convey the secretive degeneracy of opium dens and feasts with panthers from the vantage point of a modern society in which two million people take recreational drugs on a weekly basis and where you can tune in to TV porn any time of the night or day. The danger is that for youngish modern viewers, these characters with their risqué bon mots and sideward glances can appear somewhat lame, like a group of mild eccentrics gathered for one of those weekend murder-mystery packages. The only way round it would be to make Dorian’s dastardly acts and pastimes particularly explicit and shocking, something the film absolutely fails to do.

What it does instead is make Dorian sort of straight. Other than a few pansexual clinches, in this version our man certainly has an eye for the ladies. Excuse me, but this is not how I understood the subtext of the book. All Wilde’s vague allusions to Dorian’s various degradations, all that man-on-man talk about beauty and youth, all that adoration — it was certainly enough for me, as a teenager on the school bus, to read it hidden within the covers of a Harold Robbins. The needs of the market can doubtless be blamed for the attempt at making Dorian more, as it were, mainstream, but they needn’t have worried: Brokeback Mountain has come and gone and nobody died.   

It probably has something to do with the teenage following of Ben Barnes, whom we last saw as Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia. He is Blue Peter handsome, which is to say, nothing very much going on below the waist. But if past adaptations are anything to go by, this makes him a perfect fit for Wilde’s anti-hero. In the best-known film version from 1945, Dorian was played by Hurd Hatfield, an asexual poppet who, with his beady eyes and pert nose, looked like a meerkat in a frock coat. Similarly, Peter Firth in the 1976 BBC version occasionally resembled Bo-Peep. None of these actors gives the impression of being a beast in the bedroom. They play Dorian as a passive character, revelling in the simpering admiration of those who want to be him, or make love to him. A figure of self-conscious “beauty” as opposed to sex, he is to the Cecil Beaton-loving crowd what Brad Pitt is to the multiplexes.

This means that there has yet to be a Dorian who could convince a popular audience. Maybe this is not the fault of screenwriters or directors. Perhaps it goes back to Wilde himself, and that odd little cultural tradition of aestheticism, which accorded studied refinement an exaggerated reverence, was disdainful of sexual nitty-gritty and so affected a snobbery about it.

But surely we can take a chance and be a little earthier today? After all, with a bit of imaginative casting James Bond lost his father figure image and became a porn stud. Imagine the frisson there would have been watching Brad or Jude, in their prime, playing Dorian. All that beauty, and sex too. And it would have meant something. Not once did I find myself really believing or caring about what Ben Barnes got up to behind closed doors. Which, especially in this case, rather defeats the point.